Nelson Mandela said, “A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.”
By this, I think he meant that a good head — the ability to think clearly and precisely — along with a good heart — the kindness of spirit — together, can do great things.
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that as far as our physical body goes, what’s good for the heart is also good for the brain.
In fact, research over the past decade has confirmed the intimate connection between our brains and our hearts, and how caring for one means caring for the other.
Research proves the heart-head connection
From 2011 through 2016, 160 older sedentary adults with CIND (cognitive impairment without dementia) and at least one additional risk factor for cardiovascular disease enrolled in the ENLIGHTEN trial.
Participants were divided into four intervention groups:
- One group was prescribed six months of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (think walking or stationary biking), three months under supervision, and three months independently at home.
- A second group received weekly instruction on how to modify their diet to meet the requirements of the DASH diet (DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension).
- A third group in the ENLIGHTEN trial received both aerobic exercise training and counseling on the DASH diet.
- A fourth group received more standard and general health education.
After six months, the group that had performed aerobic exercise retained better cognitive function, even after discontinuing their exercise practice. The same was true of those who were on the DASH diet, to a slightly lesser degree.
So, eating the right foods can support a healthy brain almost as good as rigorous exercise? Sign me up! But what if this was a one-off situation?
We don’t think so, and here’s why…
Another long-term study, the Rush Memory and Aging Project, provided 818 dementia-free subjects for a smaller study that looked at the DASH diet and how it may prevent or slow cognitive decline.
Mary Clare Morris, professor of nutrition and nutritional epidemiology (how nutrition relates to disease) at Rush University in Chicago, shared the results of this study at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in 2013.
Following the DASH diet was significantly associated with a slower rate of decline in all areas of cognitive performance, except for visual-spatial abilities (That is, remembering and understanding based on a sense of space, distance and measurement. You would use these abilities to merge into traffic or learn your way around a new building).
In particular, eating vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and saturated fats were highly associated with a slower rate of cognitive decline.
The diet that can protect both heart and brain
The DASH diet has been shown to lower blood pressure, increase insulin sensitivity, and to reduce weight, as well as serum cholesterol levels.
It also is known to control inflammation and oxidative stress, two conditions that lead directly to heart disease.
Admittedly, sticking to a DASH diet isn’t the easiest thing in the world. It calls for eating eight to ten servings of fruits and vegetables a day, while far fewer than half of us are eating even the minimum requirement of these foods.
A Mediterranean-style diet is geared toward heart health. But, some time ago, researchers at Rush University Medical Center took the best of the Mediterranean diet and combined it with the DASH diet to design the MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay).
Because it contains components of the Mediterranean diet, it’s good for your heart. But the MIND diet is specifically geared toward preserving your brain and cognitive functioning.
If you want to move toward this eating style, you can start by adding more vegetables to your daily diet. If you want to embrace this diet more completely, here’s how to do it.
Editor’s note: No matter how careful you are about doing all the right things for a healthy brain, one medication could possibly wipe it all out. That’s because a popular drug makes it FOUR times more likely you’ll lose your memories. Are you taking it? Click here to find out…
- Longer Term Effects of Diet and Exercise on Neurocognition: 1‐Year Follow‐up of the ENLIGHTEN Trial — Journal of the American Geriatrics Society
- Aerobic exercise and heart-healthy diet may slow development of memory problems — Neuroscience News
- Food for thought: DASH diet slowed cognitive decline — Clinical Neurology News
- The heart and the brain: an intimate and underestimated relation — Netherlands Heart Journal